The Shape Of Things to Cum: Helen Beard’S Hard Candy | Foreword for Helen Beard: The Desire Path

Fuck me, we live in curious times. I’m writing this essay sat on a plane headed for New York. It’s a flight I have taken many, many times. Today’s flight is different, though. Firstly, the plane is half empty, which is most unusual. Feels kind of weird. Ominous, even. Yetmore unusual is the number of passengers wearing facemasks on the plane. Little ninjas-cum-surgeons dotted about the seats, hidden behind their (sadly, futile) protection from the Coronavirus that currently plagues us all. It’s only their eyes that reveal their truth. I see some whispering dilated anxiety; others rolled back in piques of self-humiliation at having to sport something as ridiculous as a fucking facemask. On a plane. Headed to New York. I look like a plonker, those eyes say. Yes, you do, say I.

All those masks got me thinking. The first thing they achieve is a change to the ordinary physiognomic form of those wearing them. Mouths are now reduced to giant sanitary pads, supposedly collecting all those nasty Covid-19 germs that hail from more moist pastures below, and which serve to protect little old virus-free folk like me, just sat here typing away. But likely won’t. These masks, whilst seemingly innocuous, now signify indices a little more startling and disturbing when seen in this context; that of being a passenger on an airplane. What ordinarily emblematizes the comfort of hygiene and safety now, oddly enough, speaks of contamination; disease and promises all sorts of pandemic-promoting panic. On a plane. 10,000 metres up in the sky. I should probably start drinking immediately. But let’s carry on thinking. For now.

Shape shifts. Meaning wobbles. Image helicopters in and out of index. What I’m seeing is not what I’m getting. What I’m getting I do not want to see. Yet I feel it. Powerfully. These masks interrogate competitive binaries of wellness/illness; protection/contamination; self/other but deliver antagonistic tributaries of meaning in contrast to their object and subject legitimacy. These masks now cut deep into that squidgy layer of the Signification Cake we call the abject. It’s where the dirty bastards of epistemology and meaning reside, bashing innocence into experience; sucking the seminal out of the cool and collected surfaces of structure, subject and object. It’s where presentation is blown into representation. And it’s here, in that hot and sweaty dungeon of indexical transmogrification, that the art of Helen Beard also resides. And, boy, does she love it down there.

Helen does to a mellifluous form of geometric abstraction what masks do (for me) to the Coronavirus. Rather than protect, she infects her viewer. Rather than skim on the surface of subject (and the subject of surface), we are all pulled down by Helen’s amoebic forms, deep into a fluidity of understanding that congregates in the cathedral of abjection. Of fluids. Of sex. Of pornography. In Helen’s pictorial universe a strangely seductive synaesthesia is at play where volume kisses plane; line fingers composition and colour fucks the shit out of other colours. In Meaningless Recreation one finds an apple-green inner thigh support a dark greenpenis with a pair of canary-yellow balls, shown in an act of anal sex. It’s an orgy of planar and volumetric chroma, with the surface flattened, simplified and slowed down to evince this hashtag of an ideogrammatic sexual act. The emptiness of the pornographic source, echoed in the clinical approach to Helen’s choiceof shapes, is likewise continued in the title of the painting. It is the perfect stained-glass window for a church of the abject, articulating a pornographic pose, with pause pressed by the viewer’s need to follow the artist’s yellow-brick-road of design and desire. A path both abstract yet fleshy; both painterly yet sexual. A path that lets the viewer penetrate the very DNA of desire.

A desire path is a line or trail caused by human footfall traffic. It usually represents the easiest route taken between start and finish. These paths are urban shortcuts, often records of trespass and thus, by extension, they delineate acts of defiance. This concept breathes heavily in the art of Helen Beard. She shepherds us out of the simple pens of pure, flat colour contained within equally easy graphic form into fields of fucks and sucks; cocks and cunts; kisses and butts. In Fleur-de-Lis we are led from wish to wish fulfilled in as few massages of colour and as few sweeps of the brush as possible. Through a zingy tessellation of purple, ochre, yellow and dark brown shapes, Helen creates a highly eroticized jigsaw puzzle of desire that, through its own animated gesture, renders all the wet panting, labial licking and slippy-slurpy-sloppiness of oral sex in paint. Paint brusquely brushed on to her support so that, from certain angles, it captures the light and dazzles before us, energising the primal act she depicts. Helen’s desire path originates with colour and ends at composition as much as a kiss can end at destination orgasm.

All the libidinal energy that shoots out of Helen’s work is not a translation of instantly recognisable, plasticised forms. Her erotic pulse is born from the electrical charge generated by geometry. Which is a little bit like saying that mathematics gets you all hot under the collar. So something very clever (and slightly ironic) is clearly going on in Helen’s paintings. Something that eroticizes the building blocks of painting; something that sexualises the mechanics of her process. Something that makes dry wet. Very wet. Interesting that hers is an art that, mechanically, dries after starting wet and, of course, dynamically indulges its viewer with an act that – if done properly – ends up wet, having started out dry. Gender and genitalia, figure and form, sex and sexuality all emerge from a vernacular of simple arcs, lines, circles, oblongs and hemispheres of saturated, unadulterated colour. Sometimes, as in Swedish Fish, those forms are easy to read. Clearly, we are presented with an image of a woman riding a man with a penis of prodigious proportions. Lucky her. But seen up close it is also clear that Helen has merely painted interconnected lozenges of different shapes and of wildly different colour and tone. Alien, sickly tones. Even when the image and action is quick to find and relatively detailed in description, such as in What Do You Need?, What Do You Want? her emphasis remains always on the flat pool of painted colour she shapes and its relationship to the shape it is juxtaposed with. That composition sees nipples reduced to semi-circles or hair shown as wedges of blocked colour, with the artist suggesting the act of coitus in her sinewy, liquid line that swivels and turns all over her surface. Our emphasis, as the viewer, is on embarking upon that desire path of gratification that quickly takes us from shape to shag; from volume to vagina; from flat to fuck; from colour to cunt. Desire diddles with design and tries to free meaning from matter. Therein lies the rub of looking at Helen’s work.

The title of this essay is partly inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel, The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933. In it Wells sees a dystopian future, spelled out in a series of unfortunate events that elastically leads his reader up to the year 2106, where a bankrupt economy has caused war to escalate and plague to conflagrate in Europe (which leads us back to that fucking virus again). Knowing how that disaster has come about, but not really grasping why. Wells’ journey is an odyssey along a desire path gone wrong. Where desire, rather than build, destroys; rather than comfort, frightens; rather than explain, confuses. In the same way Helen makes abstraction speak like figuration, but without ever spelling it out for her viewer. She shapes and suggests; she posits and positions but she doesn’t reveal; she doesn’t declare. She wants our desire – our innate, Jungian primal scream of desire – to colour our judgement on colour, composition and delineation. Chevron immediately draws attention to its pictorial scaffolding by referring to itself as a shape. Yet the bright, loosely-brushed yellow and blockier, dark pink chevrons that confront one another within the composition cannot be considered just as pictorial devices. Helen wants optics to be driven erotically and aesthetically. She wants us to see the pattern and the penetration and to make sure the one cannot escape the other.

Moreover, Helen also wants to question the primacy of the sexual act and, most importantly, the potency of the pornographic image upon which her abstraction is predicated. We’re not contemplating just shapes; we’re not looking just at ornamental, abbreviated silhouettes of pornographic performance. We’re looking at the forms Helen employs and the manner in which she executes those forms, to register penetration, cunnilingus or ejaculation, for example. We’re not digesting formally or phenomenologically. We’re looking at the shapes of things to cum.

Wells’ dystopian vision finds a nexus with that other spieler of happy thoughts, J. G. Ballard who, in his novel Crash (1973), wrote that “A widespread taste for pornography means that nature is alerting us to some threat of extinction.” Imagine all those Popeye-armed boys, exhausted from marathons of manic masturbation egged on by streams of online pornography, unable to procreate because they’re desiccated from a lack of desire. In a sense Helen’s paintings, rather than articulate or celebrate the pornographic image upon which her pattern is unravelled, actually denies the source its concreteness and reality and thus dilutes it of its capacity as an amulet of and for desire. The Callipygian figure, bent over and thrust to the front of the picture plane of Blue Moon, is born out of a contemplation of two large hemispheres: one Cambridge blue, the other Oxford blue. Rowing rivals. Fucking rivals. The colours resist each other, spreading themselves away from the centre optically, so whilst this painting haunts because of its not-so-coded invitation to come take a look inside those two full cheeks of aristocratic blues, it may well chime the death-knell of pornography and, in the process, problematize the dynamic of the male gaze itself. Men looking at women wearing just a G-string and stockings, writhing on a TV screen, showing off their generous bottoms, becomes men looking at a painterly choreography of shape and colour. No power play. No grunts. No orgasms (fake or otherwise). Helen’s spicy images are now boiled down into sweet chromatic confections of form. The multiple jabs of pornography now overcome by Helen’s left hooks of concrete colour, tactile texture and stylized shape and structure. The knickers might still be on, but the gloves are definitely off now.

All one needs to do to properly enjoy a painting by Helen is to look like you taste. To see like you touch. To feel shape and colour and contour. That way you can take enormous pleasure in the joyous possibilities for the figure within the alphabet of the abstract, unveiled by Helen’s tangoed entanglement of the ideas (and supposed ideals) of art and sex; of lick and line. Helen Beard’s art – both soft and hard - is utterly delicious on the eye. Sweet yet saucy; strong yet supple, she serves saturated, schematized sensation and seduction. For the heart, the brain and anywhere else you fancy being tickled. Hard candy, indeed.